Neil LaBute doesn't play nice. America's obsession with beauty is not pretty in LaBute's hands, but it will be funny, and, quite possibly, revealing.
The third piece of the savagely comic playwright's beauty trilogy, reasons to be pretty, now up at Theater LaB Houston (TLH) and running through Feb. 5, captures contemporary life in all its scorching truth.
You might recognize LaBute's name from the feature films, The Shape of Things, Nurse Betty and In the Company of Men. Or maybe you were one of the lucky ones who got in to see LaBute's biting comedy, Fat Pig, during its sold-out run at TLH in 2007.
Reasons to be pretty follows Douglas Carter Beane's The Little Dog Laughed, directed by TLH resident director Jimmy Phillips, which made numerous "best play" lists, including mine. Even with a several week run the play sold out. The season's hottest ticket in town came from a tiny theater with a Texas-sized reputation.
There's not a classic old chestnut in sight at TLH, which focuses on plays you could see in New York or London right now or in the past few years. Founded by Gerald Blaise LaBita in 1993, TLH regularly produces Houston premieres.
Its devoted audience has grown accustomed to cutting edge drama. LaBita travels to theater hubs to find plays that interest him, his sophisticated subscriber base and what will work in his cozy 65-seat theater. Comedies, dramas, musicals — they're all there. Most often, they are plays you can't see anywhere else in Houston.
After the resounding success of Fat Pig, LaBita wanted to keep LaBute's acid tongue alive at TLH. Director Mark Adams sees LaBute as part of the lineage of David Mamet and Harold Pinter.
"LaBute studied with Mamet, who was influenced by Pinter. So you have the father, son and the holy ghost," quips Adams, artistic director of the College of the Mainland Community Theater. "LaBute has such a gift for dialogue , the way people really speak. He drops you in the middle of a conversation, so we have to catch up and figure it all out. It's like eavesdropping. "
The New York Times agreed, calling LaBute's prose "some of the freshest and most illuminating American dialogue to be heard anywhere."
Adams sees a link with Pinter's theater of menace.
"With LaBute, it's emotional violence," he says. He finds the script plays to his strength as a director. "With a cast of four, I can really flesh out the characters. And you will not like everyone in this play.
"A great Russian novelist wrote that unless you make an enormous number of mistakes in your twenties, you’ll never amount to anything. To me, LaBute is showing us four vividly drawn twentysomethings, all making big mistakes and/or showing bad judgment. What makes the play hopeful, ultimately, is that they can all amount to something someday if they will only learn from those mistakes."
TLH regularly attracts both seasoned and up and coming actors. The terrific cast of reasons includes Bobby Haworth, Lauren Dolk, Mike Yager and Rebekah Stevens.
Gone Missing, which will be directed by Linda Phenix, is based on interviews with real-life New Yorkers, missing such objects as keys, personal identification, a Gucci pump and even their minds.
"Gone Missing is not a traditional musical. It runs the gamut from funny to poignant, making it quite an emotional ride," says Phenix, a longtime TLH collaborator. "The music is all over the genre map too, from pop to beautiful ballads."
Phenix got hooked on TLH early on, and has directed about one play a year, including the popular The Big Bang and Boy Groove. "TLH has such a niche in Houston," Phenix adds.
TLH's space itself has good story. "This was Mickey's Foot Market, my parent's grocery store. We lived in the back," says LaBita, who has always been interested in theater.
Situated south of I-10 not far from the Washington Ave. corridor, the neighborhood is in major transition. Sleek new townhomes nestle in between tiny cottages. With Spring Street Studios opening soon, the area is getting artsier by the minute.
"I was surprised how long it took to change though," says LaBita, who realizes he might be sitting on some prime real estate.
LaBita, Adams and Phenix all see the intimacy of the setting as a plus. "It's thrilling and harrowing. There's no escape," Adams says. "You are trapped in a room with the cast with no one more than 12 feet away. There's a lot of painful exchanges in LaBute's play. You might get uncomfortable. It's cringe drama — you may be horrified but you cannot look away."
For Phenix, it's about finding the right piece that will work in the space. "I love the intimacy. It makes your hair stand on end. But I did have to learn how to work in the space."
For LaBita, he wouldn't have it any other way. "If we moved, I would still build a small theater."
TLH concludes its season with [title of show]. No, that's not a mistake — it's really the title of this whimsical new musical about two nobodies named Hunter and Jeff who decide to write a completely original musical starring themselves and their attractive and talented lady friends, Susan and Heidi.
With TLH legend Phillips directing, expect equal doses of sass, flash and fun.
Get a taste of LaBute's way with words from The Shape of Things:
"Hide and Seek" from Gone Missing performed by The Civilians.